Meeting a Princess in Basilan

NOTE: A week before the historic signing of a peace pact that aims to end decades-old conflict in Mindanao, I found myself in Lamitan, Basilan in the house of a Princess. Currently part of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Basilan is expected to become part of a new political entity called Bangsamoro. Hopefully this framework agreement will bring lasting peace and encourage more people to visit places like Basilan, which offers a wealth of natural beauty and culture.

The Princess welcomed us to her home warmly, apologizing and shooing off several barking dogs who came running to greet us at the gate. As we entered, I was overwhelmed by the contrast of colors and items in her house.

The walls were covered in red curtains and vivid tapestries of Yakan fabrics, the traditional weaving of the Yakan Tribe, the original inhabitants of Basilan. The ceiling rafters were lined with smaller pieces of fabric while gold kulintang gongs adorned a small staircase leading up. A surprising assortment of stuffed toys and figurines were displayed side by side with traditional brassware. Musical instruments and vases sat on a brightly patterned Mickey Mouse mat.

Princess Lily Cuevas is the daughter of the last recognized Sultan of Basilan, Datu Kalun (Pedro Cuevas Jr.). She resides in her hometown of Lamitan and remains an active civic leader and peace-builder.

As we marveled at the items displayed around the house, she brought out even more beautiful Yakan woven fabrics from her private collection, laying them out proudly on her dining table.

“The Yakan tribe is fond of using very bright colors,” she told us. “The patterns on the fabrics are drawn from nature. This one echoes the patterns of a snake. This one symbolizes fishes,” she added as she displayed the different designs. Most had bright geometric patterns of diamonds and flowers. To me, one piece resembled the pattern of leaves falling from trees.

The members of the Yakan tribe are known for their excellent craftsmanship and are considered among the finest weavers in the country. The fabrics they weave using traditional looms are so detailed that it takes a week or so to finish a meter of cloth . A standard wall hanging of geometric designs 3-4 meters long can take almost a month to finish. The woven striped fabric using finer threads can take even longer to make.

Traditionally, they are said to use plants like pineapple and abaca fibers to weave their fabrics. Similar to how the T’boli tribe make t’nalak, the fibers used to be dyed with natural materials such as leaves, roots or barks to make colorful combinations and intricate designs.

However, nowadays commercial thread is widely used. Weaving table runners, placemats, wall decors, coin purses, wallets, and other items for souvenirs has become a livelihood venture of the remaining Yakan members of the Yakan tribe whose main market are tourists in Zamboanga City. In fact, many families have relocated to Zamboanga City and reside in the Yakan Weaving Village where they sell these items as souvenirs.

There was something mesmerizing about the complexity of the threads woven together that made up the patterns. Each color stood out from the plain cloth, forming part of a perfect picture like a mosaic. According to Princess Lily, most weavers don’t even follow a fixed pattern, so each piece is unique.

Though the Yakan fabrics she showed from her collection were not for sale, there were a few items set aside to be shipped to the Yakan Weaving Village in Zamboanga City. I ended up buying a bright red piece with the words Lamitan, Basilan on it and one cut section of an unfinished piece with frayed edges, which bore a very fine intricate design.

Before we left, Princess Lily showed us one of her regal costumes, a long-sleeved black blouse bearing elaborate embroidery and gold buttons, which she said she dons only during special occasions.

“You should come back during the Lami-Lamihan Festival,” she urged us, so we could see more of the Yakan weaving and take part in the festivities. The festival, which is held every June 23-27 highlights the preservation of the Yakan heritage, customs and traditions though cultural presentations. I might have to do just that.

My brief visit to Basilan showed me a side of the province that you don’t often read about in the news. Hopefully, the signing of the peace pact is one step closer to peace, and will encourage more tourists to visit and experience the place for themselves.

29 thoughts on “Meeting a Princess in Basilan

  1. Unlike Ed, i won’t get bored of reading about fabrics because i spent 3 years studying them! 😀 Anyway, i’ve met an Abong already but not a princess. A Filipina royalty, how exciting! 😀

  2. A humble person – Princess Lily, me too isn’t fond of fabrics, but there’s something interesting in how they weave it in Mindanao. It carries along a long tradition as well, making it more interesting to learn.

  3. Bet na bet ko ang prints! When the tribal trend came in, slightly puro earth tones lang yung combo – bet ko ang color palette nila kasi super bright colors! Me likey! Me likey a loooot! 🙂

    I loooove the first one and yung isang green print that has a vintage feel to it. Shucks. Ganda talaga!

  4. Hi Kara, this is such an interesting story for me. My maternal grandfather once told me that he was a grandson of the Sultan of Basilan. I would like to trace this information properly and would appreciate any help in being able to contact this lady, Princess Lily. Congratulations for your efforts!

      • Hi! I’m a close relative of Princess Lily C. Cuevas. Thanks to you, Kara for having visited my precious Aunt Lily. You can get more info about the Yakan Tribe Heritage, Datu Kalun and the first Christian Families in Lamitan, Basilan Province as I belong to the Cuevas, Pamaran and Antonio families from Las Pinas to Bacoor, Cavite who migrated to Basilan. I’m now residing at Quezon City.

  5. Such a wonderful blog! It’s always fascinating to see all those hand-woven cloths, much more to own them as souvenirs. You’re lucky to be there with the Basilan princess. Hope I would have the chance to see them for myself too.

  6. Can you please tell us more about Princess Lily herself–about her life now, in Lamitan?

    She has been engaged in promoting Yakan handicrafts for many years–at least since the early early 1970’s. She began when there was only one, old Yakan woman left who knew the craft of the weaving, and who, with Lily’s promoting, began teaching others to carry it on. There is quite a story to tell about Ms. Cuevas.

    Lamitan (and the island) went through some terrible times in subsequent years, and it must have been trying for her and her family. I’m very happy to see that she has come through it all, and is comfortable in her home. I also have pieces of her Yakan fabrics, that she gave me so many years ago. I value them for their beauty, and as master works of Philippine indigenous art, and as treasures from Yakan hands to my heart.

  7. It’s funny how me and my cousins used to ignore those fabrics whenever we come for a visit in Aunt. Lily’s house. But your article makes me realize that we should appreciate the beauty of Lamitan and the Yakan culture. Especially us, being a part of Aunt.Lily’s family. Thank you.

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    • Nice to find you here, Dorie. The original designs and color combinations were made by the mother of Auntie Lily, the late Hja. Aisa Cuevas, we lovingly called Apu Aisa. I have stayed with them during her last years in the 1990s until she passed on. Auntie Lily and I have invested on some weavers in the highlands of Bohe Bessey, Bohe Ibu and Parangbasak, Lamitan, Basilan Province and some woven fabrics are being sold at the Yakan Village, Upper Calarian, Zamboanga City.

      • I find these Yakan made fabrics very attractive…, colorful! Sometime 1996-97, In my “Peace initiatives (some 38 Barangay captains/reps, including MNLF commander “Kang Alfa an some 8 others, mayors Joel Maturan and Alfredo Furigay) in Tipo-tipo, coined UP UP Tipo-tipo (an extended term from our previous program UP-UP Salog Valley”) we discussed among our other topics, putting up a factory of “tennon” in Mag kawa or Bakesong…in fact, we invisioned to put up a wharf and Barter Area somewhere in Geong- Tumahubong- Bato-bato area! It provided a kind of “short respite” from that very tense situation in the area…
        Later, in my retirement years, I learned about Fre Trade Areas (FTA) from my uncompleted study of ASEAN in UP Open University! With the DU30, Administration, it is not farfetch to recommend that Basilan sulu and Sabah Areas, even, north Borneo could be an ideal places for an ASEAN FTAs…what do you think si Hadji (“Gov” Jerry) is in my FB too…

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